[25 April 2007]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
Fittingly, it is Henry James who offers the best technique for approaching Arthur Phillips’ delightfully slippery new novel of intimate hauntings in Victorian London: “Do not mind anything that anyone tells you about anyone else. Judge everyone and everything for yourself.”
Solid advice from the author of The Turn of the Screw. Felicitous, too, because James’ famous ghost story, the substance of which readers still debate, is clearly the well from which Angelica springs. But it’s not easy to trust your perceptions of reality in this richly detailed, atmospheric, psychological labyrinth of a novel. Phillips uses four perspectives to flesh out the tale of a family’s coming apart amid hauntings and to construct a compelling framework from which to explore the repression of the era, class issues, the morality of science, marriage and the roles of men and women.
Truth has always been an unreliable commodity in Phillips’ remarkably assured, dazzling fiction. In his debut Prague—which is set, in fact, in Budapest—his young expatriates indulge in a quick round of Sincerity, the object being to fool other players into believing whopping lies. The Egyptologist‘s Oxford-educated Ralph Trilipush is a magnificent tragicomic study of the deluded narrator, feverishly working to uncover the tomb of an unknown ancient while sneering at his colleague Howard Carter, working just down the road in the Valley of the Kings on a “lesser” boy king named Tutankhamun.
In Angelica, Phillips twists the concept of reality even further. As each character’s viewpoint unfolds, loyalties shudder and shift. We are left painfully alert to all troubling possibilities of the Barton family, which begin when Joseph, a research scientist—his definition; another voice will enunciate “vivisectionist” in tones of deepest disgust—bans four-year-old Angelica from sleeping in the bedroom he shares with his wife Constance. The child has a perfectly good room of her own, and it has long been time to move her into it.
“Would you have us live as a band of Gypsies?” Joseph shouts. Then, more calmly: “Watch, Con—she will celebrate the change.”
But to Constance, the move indicates only that Joseph is impatient for a resumption of long-delayed intimacy. Warned by doctors that having another child will kill her—“God demanded of Constance three efforts before a baby survived ...”—she knows the ouster of Angelica is the first step toward her demise. She finds herself preoccupied with death, dreaming of British women and children murdered in an African village, of women torn apart by a local madman. “This, then, was London, men mocking men hunting men who in dark corners preyed with incomprehensible rituals upon women.”
The household shudders. Dishes crack. Foul odors wend their way through Angelica’s new room. And a terrifying blue spirit—“the flying man,” the little girl calls him—begins to menace her.
Or does it? With each page, Phillips throws out more questions. Is the specter a manifestation of Joseph’s dark desires or the soul of the house’s previous owner, or is Constance an hysteric unable to detach from her child? Is Joseph merely demanding his husbandly rights, or does he want nothing but attention and affection? Is he plotting to destroy Constance to get Angelica alone for unspeakable reasons? And what should one make of his ominous nighttime murmurings of “Lem, hold her down, can’t you?”
We hear from everyone. Actress-turned-spiritualist Anne Montague, hired by Constance to rid the house of evil, views Joseph with a disparaging eye and reflects a practical feminist sensibility: “Do you suppose, Mrs. Barton, that London’s prisons are teeming with murderesses? Do you suppose that the monster so lovingly depicted in the newspapers this morning, with a fourth female victim laid torn and dead upon a rooftop, do you suppose that this villain is a female?”
But once we peer into his mind, Joseph sounds about as woeful as one of his miserable lab specimens. “He suffers from that most modern disease infecting so many of our men: irresolution. ... He has been lulled into allowing feminine impulses to overflow their appropriate canals and inundate his home.” Fickle Angelica’s affections flit disloyally from parent to parent and back again. And what of the mysterious fifth voice, whose narration frames the story and seems to offer compassion for each disparate account?
The repetition of conversations could grow tedious, but Phillips builds suspense as skillfully as he reconstructs the delicate language of the time, which in saying almost nothing speaks volumes about sexual anxiety. Phantoms are “not the only problem a young woman might face when placed in daily proximity to a man,” thinks Anne Montague, but Joseph dreams of gently brushing his wife’s hair the way he once caressed his mother’s. Phillips won’t allow us to know where all the truth lies—and sometimes it’s just stuck between the widening gaps of perception—but from Angelica we can learn that the worst hauntings arise from our foolish, frightened selves.